School Climate & Safety Opinion

Education’s 9/11 Report Card

By Maurice J. Elias — September 04, 2002 9 min read
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What keeps us from learning some of the most obvious lessons from tragic events?

In Mosaic law, one needs to hear, see, or experience something three times before its truth can be accepted and integrated. This is at variance with our more common notion of one-trial learning, but it is highly instructive regarding the impact of Sept. 11, 2001.

One would think that a single devastating tragedy, involving horrific injury and loss of life and the sustained threat of repetition, would be enough to teach a significant lesson. But this has not been true for 9/11. The Columbine High School tragedy, not the first but certainly the worst of school shootings, has led to some changes, but not necessarily all for the better. An overly rigid, zero-tolerance policy and an emphasis on security procedures and equipment have been primary, rather than a focus on character building, mission clarifying, and soul renewing within our schools. What keeps us from learning some of the most obvious lessons from tragic events?

Again, the tenets of Mosaic law provide insights. The story comes to mind of Korach, who used the crisis and calamity of the people wandering in the desert to sow fear and discontent for his own personal gain. He masqueraded as someone with higher interests in mind, but events proved otherwise. Korach was not ready to look at what was happening to people around him. He cared not about the children, although he pretended to. He wanted power and control, and to wrest the mantle of leadership from Moses. But he had no vision, no solutions. His only plan?to the extent there was a plan even for this?was a return to past miseries, to the old ways. Perhaps his greatest sin was in robbing people of hope, pretending there was an easy way out, conning them into not seeing the harsh reality of oppression and limited opportunity they had lived before and would live again if they followed him. Korach and his followers eventually met an unpleasant end, but not before their hubris resulted in years of misery for those they left behind.

Today, too many people are using the events of last Sept. 11 for their own ends, and not for the positive ends of students and society. We remain locked in a social and educational environment that is oriented around a life of tests, when we need to be preparing students for the tests of life. Incremental and often inconsistent test-score gains among students who have the greatest need do not seem to have caused sufficient alarm, indignation, and questioning.

The events of 9/11 are, for our nation’s future health and well-being, an emergency call, a call to transform our view of what education must provide for students. Our children need academic, social, and emotional learning, and they need preparation for civic engagement and responsible citizenship in a democracy. Only then will they be ready to meet the tests of life.

Yet those who have the mantle of leadership for school policy and governance have seemed singularly unable or uninterested in creating the sustained integration so obviously necessary and so manifestly possible. Why?

Mosaic law alerts us to the need to focus on the moral principles embodied by events, rather than particularities or technicalities. For some situations, there often are many more instructive examples that can be brought forward than are typically seen, especially at first. So, waiting for three examples is not always a matter of waiting. It is often more a matter of connecting the dots.

Several of the national collaboratives and school reform partnerships with which I work have been connecting for some time the dots left by socioeconomic challenges and the changing needs of modern life. They include the Character Education Partnership, whose National Schools of Character Award identifies schools and districts that have integrated principles of sound character education throughout all aspects of their structures and functioning; the Corporation for National Service, which identifies Service Learning Leader schools that have worked to integrate preparation for citizenship into the fabric of school life; the Education Commission of the States, whose Compact for Learning and Citizenship recognizes districts and states for taking leadership roles in citizenship education; the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, whose flagship schools and districts commit themselves to the integration of high-quality social-emotional programs into their structures in a way synergistic with academic goals; and the Comer Schools and 21st Century Schools, which take the perspective that students must be educated fully and have model sites that walk the talk.

The common vision: All students will graduate and live in a world that will demand much of them in ways that go beyond intellectual skills. They need to be prepared academically, socially, emotionally, politically, economically, and, as we are seeing more and more, ethically. Schools need to be places of welcome, safety, acceptance, growth, learning, and meaning for every student who comes through their doors.

What characterizes truly comprehensive schools, schools that provide this kind of integrated preparation for students?

  • They display visibly and proudly a passionate concern for literacy and learning in ALL its forms. These schools use the strengths of children as bridges over their deficiencies and as the rope to pull them up in all areas. They operate on a model that focuses on what children can do, rather than orienting the school day, day after day, year after year, around what children have great difficulty doing.
  • They recognize that the emotional life of children, and their relationships in and out of school, are major determinants of how and what they learn and how much they take to heart. Emotions play a strong role in directing attention and learning. Only learning that is integrated into students’ sense of who they are and who they can and will become can be a lasting part of their identity. So comprehensive schools are safe; they make a commitment not to sanction, directly or indirectly, bullying or any other form of peer or adult harassment. This is true not only in the classroom, but as the school extends into the community, also on buses, at bus stops, on trips, on surrounding streets, and in clubs, teams, and other performance groups.
  • They provide opportunities for service, in classrooms, hallways, the school building and grounds, and in the community, nation, and larger world. These schools use the context of service to create teachable moments across curricular areas, building competence in such social-emotional skills as perspective taking while developing positive character traits.
  • They devote specific time, opportunity, and concern for building students’ character, so they put knowledge to use for beneficial, laudable purposes. One of the lessons of 9/11 is that technology and literacy and math skills can be exploited for evil ends when mobilized in the service of hate. Likewise, an ever-growing list of corporate scandals teaches us what happens when knowledge is applied for individual greed at the expense of many.
  • They are explicitly and proudly dedicated to building a community of learners that includes all students, as well as staff members, parents, and people in the community. This means that truly comprehensive schools are concerned with ensuring that each child reaches his or her potential. Academic difficulty is a cue for more intensive, creative, and persistent forms of instruction, not blaming, waiting, or ostrich-like avoidance. Statistics are not feared or “spun” by such schools, but are used to guide future efforts in a spirit of continuous improvement. Services are not accessed only after repeated failure and overt misery. Rather, they are dictated by the dual concepts of strengthening and supporting, not primarily remediating.
  • Finally, these schools have a true concern for leaving no child behind, not of any racial or ethnic group, handicapping condition, or socioeconomic status. Every child walking through the doors of a public school deserves the full energies of educators and the community?including the community of students and parents?to ensure that he or she walks out after high school with the preparation for a place in public life. When students’ life circumstances are such that public schools cannot mobilize adequately to help them, these schools find places to turn, in partnership, for the resources they need to provide a life of hope, opportunity, and meaning.

What will be the wake-up call that leaders in school policy and governance need, that our legislators and other elected officials need, and that parents need? Must we suffer another calamity to give us the courage to make changes in our schools that will focus on preparing students for the tests of life? If Mosaic law warns us that three occurrences give assurance of proper action, then national events may be signaling that the time to act has come.

Columbine told us what happens when children are not safe and included in school, when schools are not accepting, and when adults are not attentive to students’ cries for help. Sept. 11 told us what happens when technology is allowed to thrive without concern for humanity, when those who are supposed to be concerned about the public are not focused on their task, and, conversely, about the positive things that can happen when a crisis forces us to focus our energies and attention.

What will be the wake-up call that our leaders, legislators, and parents need?

Can we not consider the corporate-accounting scandals as crisis No. 3? They signal what happens when the values of collective well-being and social justice are put aside for the benefit of individual gain, when wealth supersedes morality, when people hold themselves higher than their communities, when knowledge and power and privilege are concentrated and not distributed, and when the public lets down its guard and removes itself from involvement in the institutions of democratic life.

In every age, moral crises cause the greatest turmoil and produce the greatest change. History teaches that when such crises are not recognized, the unaddressed moral questions simply come back more powerfully and more harmfully, visiting themselves upon subsequent generations with greater devastation until the call to action is heard and heeded.

To create an educational system that prepares students fully, with the academic, social, and emotional skills they need to meet the challenges of personal, familial, vocational, and civic life with a strong ethical and moral compass, will take courage. Let us summon up that courage.

Specific examples of schools working toward the goals expressed in this essay can be found through the Web sites of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (www.CASEL.org), the Character Education Partnership (www.character.org), the Corporation for National Service (www.nationalservice.org), and the Compact for Learning and Citizenship (www.ecs.org).

Maurice J. Elias, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J., is a member of the New Jersey Governor’s Character Education Commission and the vice chair of the leadership team of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (www.casel.org). He can be reached at mjeru@aol.com.

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